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Spreading the good word

Published:   |   Updated: December 10, 2013 at 09:26 AM

From a small fracture, to those bed-bound, in intensive care or a few weeks from deploying to the Middle East, he offers words of healing, spiritual guidance and most importantly, verbal cues of healing comfort.

Although officially retired, it's hard to tell U.S. Air Force Chaplain Lt. Col. Harold Johnson has lessened his pace. At 86 years old and a veteran of World War II, the soldier-teacher-preacher-chaplain is daily ministering the sick, the friendless and those in need.

Since 1991, when it was called Walker Memorial Hospital, Johnson has spent time at Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center and in local military facilities offering faith and devotion to those in trying times.

During his work Monday at Florida Hospital, where he is a part-time employee, Johnson stopped in the Larsen Memorial Chapel before going over his "task list" for the day.

Reviewing that list sometimes begins 3:30 a.m., when he picks up the hospital census to see which patients have requested him. By 6:45 a.m., he is usually in the hospital's chapel, offering prayers and praying with hospital staff before proceeding to the patient floors.

The routine is just one of many Johnson follows during an average retirement work week.

Johnson also ministers as a volunteer chaplain of the Florida Army National Guard B-Battery, Avon Park; the Civil Air Patrol; and the U.S. Air Force Avon Park Air Force Range, where he spends his Wednesday mornings.

He also hosts a Sunday morning religious radio program on WITS 1340 AM.

It's all part of God's grand plan in his life and it's what keeps him going, he said Monday at his home.

"It's all part of my work as a chaplain," he said. "I like the one-on-one contact with the patients, workers, service people; what's joyful is when a former patient or military member meets me later and tells me how much they appreciate what I've done working with them."

At the hospital, Johnson said when he's requested, oftentimes he doesn't have to say a word; his presence is all the patient is asking for. He said his next-door neighbor recently died and family members asked Johnson what he said to make him so comfortable in his final hours. He said he hadn't said a word.

"Touch is so important. It means so much, just a touch," said Johnson.

Florida Hospital Chaplain Linda Lynch said it's very much Johnson's tactile skills that make him stand out. She said he is one of three "half-time" employees in the hospital and one of two chaplains.

"He is the total soldier; whether he's in a military uniform or not, he's under the chief officer: God. He's a soldier on duty for God," she said.

The serenity of Avon Park is a far cry from the action of World War II. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, he enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Corps at 17.

Johnson went to basic training at Kessler Air Field in Mississippi and served in the Air Corps, Armored Division and Field Forces from 1945 until his discharge in 1951.

During that time, he was a guard at POW camp in the Philippines, a litter bearer and finished as a trombone and tuba player in the 600th U.S. Air Force Band as the war drew to a close.

Johnson's military duty and subsequent religious endeavors resulted in graduating in elementary education in 1951 from Southern Missionary College - now Southern Adventist University - in Collegedale, Tenn.

In 1951, he got his masters of arts degree in education from Immanuel Baptist College, Atlanta.

It was there that Johnson met his future wife, Harriet.

They have two children, Stephen and Karen.

Over the years, Johnson taught college in Beirut and at the Southern Adventist University, and he and his family served as Seventh-day Adventist missionaries in Beirut, as well as in Tehran, Iran, and the Southeast Africa Union.

He said one of his first military duties was guarding Japanese prisoners and that led him to a desire to help people of other cultures.

Charles "Buck" MacLaughlin, director of operations for the Air Force range, said Johnson's background helps him better relate to the 130 people staffed at the range, including 50 government civilians and four active duty service personnel.

At the end of October, the Tennessee Army National Guard of about 200 trained in Avon Park prior to deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Johnson was there to give them moral and spiritual support and guidance.

"He had tremendous dedication to the range staff and more importantly, the members of the military. That dedication speaks volumes about him," said MacLaughlin, who met Johnson in 2008.

In September, Johnson was awarded a certificate of appreciation from the 7th Squadron, 17th U.S. Calvary for his dedicated service.


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